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Google Play Music's podcasts are convenient but lack features

You might not want to ditch your go-to podcast app just yet.
Billy Steele, @wmsteele
04.27.16 in AV
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Google announced last fall that it would finally bring podcasts to Google Play Music, and last week a collection of shows debuted in the web app. This means that if you have a subscription to the service, all of your listening material is in one place -- just like Spotify. You'll no longer need to use Stitcher, Pocket Casts or the like to listen to shows. But is Google's new integration the best option? I've been waiting for the feature to arrive on the Play Music Android app, and now that it has, I can offer some impressions.

Gallery: Google Play Music podcasts hands-on | 10 Photos

A big thing Google's new podcast offering has going for it is convenience, especially if you're a Play Music subscriber. Podcasts are available from the Music app's main menu alongside options for top music charts, your library, new releases and more. You don't have to download another app and futz with the setup since podcasts appear just like other streaming content. As you might expect, the main podcast landing page is a top chart of the popular shows across all categories.

There's a handy drop-down menu for categories above the list of popular podcasts, allowing you to filter out everything but the comedy options, for example. Each show tile on the web has a play button so you can fire up the latest episode immediately as well as options for subscribe and share. On mobile, you actually have to select a show and head to its page before you're able to hit play.

On that main podcast page, there's also a tab for "Your Podcasts," where all the shows you've subscribed to reside. That personal library is a mirror image of the top charts on the main page: a grid of artwork and show titles with quick-play functionality that starts with the latest episode. This tiled arrangement of podcast options is common in other apps, including Pocket Casts and others. Again, you'll have to tap through to a show's landing page to hit play on mobile. Here you'll also find a list of episodes with a brief description of the podcast itself.

Each selection has the usual title, description, date and run time, but if you want to see the full episode notes, you'll have to click the information icon to browse them. Tapping that "i" icon also reveals the option to download an episode for offline listening inside the Play Music mobile app. Once you start an episode, the run time flips to show the time remaining if you're listening on a desktop, letting you know if you can finish what you started at the office during your evening commute. Unfortunately, that run time doesn't flip to a countdown on mobile, so the only way to see how much time is left is to swipe over to the audio player.

There are also podcast stations for all the times you can't decide what you want to hear. Despite a mention and active links in Google's announcement post, I wasn't able to find the podcast stations inside the Music app. I think this could be a great tool for discovery, but right now it's difficult to find on both the web and mobile. Stations function the exact same way as stations for Google Play's music streaming (or any service, really), only the playlist is composed of podcasts instead of songs. For example, the "Learn Something New" option pulls content from shows like Stuff You Should Know, Planet Money and How Your World Works.

If you've used Play Music before, you know exactly what to expect in terms of the player. The UI is the same as when you're streaming music or playing tunes from your library, complete with Google Cast support. The only difference is the addition of the "skip back 10 seconds" and "skip ahead 30 seconds" controls. Those controls are also available in the Android app on the main player interface and from the lock screen and by swiping down on the notifications bar. This means you won't have to navigate to the app to skip around or hit pause, which will come in handy if you're at the gym or using another app.

When you start a playlist or album, a menu icon on the player interface offers easy access to the queue. Here you can see the list of episodes and play them without having to head back to the show page. Unfortunately, you can only clear that playlist, and when you hit play on one episode, it automatically populates with more episodes from the same show. There's no way to queue up the latest episode from It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's a Podcast to play after you finish listening to Welcome to Night Vale or to make a playlist so you won't be interrupted by trying to find another show.

The addition of podcasts isn't seamless, though, as some key features are missing that make apps like Pocket Casts so attractive. First, the search functionality is pretty terrible. If the podcast you're looking for has a rather unique name, chances are it will appear at the top. I had no trouble finding Good Beer Hunting, for example. However, if what you're after has some commonly used words in its name, you'll see results for albums, songs, radio stations and video first. The podcast results will be all the way at the bottom. Pocket Casts and Stitcher both handle search much better; however, they're only sorting through podcasts and not an entire streaming library. And no, there's no way to search just for podcasts in Play Music on the desktop or in the Android app. Bummer.

There are also a few notable omissions from the podcast library. Serial, Fresh Air, This American Life and others aren't available inside the app. It's a bit odd, because other NPR shows like Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me, Pop Culture Happy Hour and Bullseye show up in search results. For sports fans, only a smattering of local ESPN shows are available, so you'll have to go to the network's own app or another piece of software to stream those national radio episodes. I only listen to a handful of podcasts, and I was able to find them all save for two: Serial, which I already mentioned, and Men in Blazers from NBC Sports. Missing shows is one of the downsides to Spotify's podcast library as well, and it's the main reason I still use Pocket Casts.

I have two main gripes with the new Play Music integration: the inability to build custom playlists and the omission of a number of popular shows. Dedicated podcast search wouldn't hurt, but I can survive without it. If a robust feature set is what you're after, Pocket Casts is probably still the best option on Android. It's worth the $4, in my opinion. Even so, Google's new podcast offering is a massive improvement over Stitcher, an app that goes down for days and sometimes weeks at a time.

Podcasts are a welcome addition to the Google Play Music app on Android. Unfortunately, iOS users will have to wait to take advantage, and the company hasn't said when that will happen. Of course, podcasts have been a part of iTunes and iOS since the jump, and they're only now making it to Google's Music app. By nesting podcasts inside the Play Music app, Google provides a convenient way to access the episodic content -- as long as the shows you like are available there.

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